The tour of Will Bruder's buildings begins south of the tracks, amid the old warehouses and storage lots and junkyards around West Buchanan Street and Seventh Avenue. This isn't a sneak investigation into the working-class underside of Bruder's work; it's an excursion plotted by the architect himself. Bruder, the architect designing Phoenix's new $43 million Central Library, wants to show off a warehouse.
"Look at the dappling of light in this entryway." Dappling? The morning sun is splintering through a warehouse portal that looks like a grater designed by a mad Italian. "Look at this paneling--to me, it's like Japanese rice paper." Bruder is rhapsodizing about a wall of exposed $8-a-sheet flakeboard. "Look at the quality of the desert's light on this galvanized steel--it's like Kahn's Kimbell!" Meaning Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum, one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century American architecture.
Will Bruder may be a fanatic, but he isn't a flake. Is it an ominous sign that the architect for the library--the most important public building to be commissioned in Phoenix in decades--is raving about the "quality of light" in a $200,000 warehouse remodel? Decidedly not. Architects who don't ponder the romance of light and texture and space give us joyless hovels like the Phoenix Civic Plaza. Bruder's library will probably be controversial, it may bust the budget, and it could be terrific.
Bruder is 43, boasts an unconventional background, and is as close to a hippie architect as one can find circa 1990. He studied sculpture, not architecture, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and came to Arizona in 1967 for a brief apprenticeship with Paolo Soleri. His hair is long, he has a scruffy beard, and he has not recently been sighted in coat and tie. He and his wife, an archaeologist, still live in the 850-square-foot house he designed and built in New River for $12,000 in 1975. (It won an Architectural Record award in 1977.)
Luxury, for Bruder, is not surrounding himself with fine things, but working and talking design eighteen hours a day. He'll be driving down the Black Canyon Freeway at seventy miles an hour, suddenly recall some obscure Italian building, and for the edification of his saucer-eyed passengers, take both hands off the wheel to sculpt its shape in the air.
"He's relentless," says Steve Martino, a Scottsdale landscape architect who has worked on several projects with Bruder. "He lives and breathes architecture; I don't think I've ever heard him talk about anything else."
His clients notice that relentlessness. "He pushes real hard," says Rick Karber, president of IMCOR, an air-conditioning and sheet-metal contractor. Bruder designed Karber's house and IMCOR's office building. "He's a very good listener, he sees what you'll take, and then if you say, `I don't understand this,' or `I don't want to do this,' he'll back off for a while--and then later come right back at you. Of all the confrontations we had over this building [IMCOR], I probably won one of a hundred. And we got a wonderful building."
Karber adds that in both his house and office building, Bruder stretched the budget--"a lot." This is hardly uncommon among architects, the one kind of artist who always gets to spend other people's money. In Bruder's case, the reason is an obsessive perfectionism. Every detail has to be utterly correct. And he has to control everything.
"For a landscape architect, he's not that much fun to work with," laments Martino. "He gives me a free hand on plants, but he always wants to do the hardscape himself--and that's what interests me, too, because it's the stage set for things to happen. "When they're in school, architecture students want to design everything in a building from the structure to the doorknobs. Will is the one practicing architect I know who actually does it. Other architects pull parts out of catalogues; he makes 'em up." In one Paradise Valley house Bruder designed, he spent half a day on the construction site installing the cabinet knobs himself. No one else would have done it correctly--that is, perversely. The knobs on every right-hand door are about an inch farther inboard than their companions on the left-hand doors. Why, for Pete's sake? Bruder obscurely mumbles something about "the tension of asymmetry." Later, in an office building, trying to explain a chest-high door pull, he says it's "to let you experience a door differently."
This sounds like classic architect's bull drool, but it may not be. Bruder isn't given to posturing. He simply wants the people who use his buildings to notice, in every waking moment, that their environment was designed--it didn't just happen.
One word keeps turning up, like a leitmotif, in his talk: "magic." In his mind, architecture must create magic to be successful, and architectural magic is the joy of the unexpected. You're at your desk in this old warehouse-turned-office, a cloud drifts overhead, and suddenly, because of a strategic six-inch skylight, the mood of the room is transformed--and you haven't noticed why. Bruder has about 130 completed projects to his credit, all but a handful of them in the Valley. They're all small--warehouse remodels, a couple of car washes, numerous private residences. His largest project to date is the 15,000-square-foot Cholla Branch Library expansion at Metrocenter.